John Dower and Louis Theroux directed a new look at the Church of Scientology.
The Church of Scientology has been well covered, or rather exposed, in the culture over the last decade or more.
Popular magazine features, such as the New Yorker's 2011 piece on Paul Haggis ("The Apostate"), as well as host of muck-raking books, a slew of documentaries, including HBO's recent Alex Gibney-directed overview, Going Clear, admittedly somewhat of a missed opportunity compared to its source material, Lawrence Wright's book of the same name. Like most truths and elucidation, things were best caputred roundabout via fiction, with Paul Thomas Anderson's loose biopic on L. Ron Hubbard, The Master.
All of this is to say that digging up dirt and controversy on the popular cult-like religion is practically a subgenre at this point.
Enter John Dower and Louis Theroux's My Scientology Movie, which is less an informational documentary and more a direct provocation to the church. They recruit former Scientology media-fixer, Mark Rathburn, who for years was kind of the Church's Michael Clayton, to film 're-creations' of some of the more controversial Scientology propaganda videos, and now kind of the poster child for SP, Scientology jargon-speak for Suppressive Person, which essentially means, someone who is doing something the Church does not like.
As Theroux and Rathburn set out to cast Church leader David Miscavige and superstar Scientologist Tom Cruise with fresh faced actors for their re-creations, they are not quiet about it. It looks more like the re-enactments are bait to draw out the awkward and the crazy into the light.
In this fashion, My Scientology Movie feels like a lesser (perhaps not quite as righteous) version of David Farrier's anti-bully doc, Tickled. I like the form, but there is less material here, and the various encounters with the Scientologist middlemen often amount to Theroux filming them with his cellphone while they film him with a handicam, while Dower films them all filming each other. As a metaphor, I'm not quite sure what that means, but welcome to the 21st century.
Danish documentarian and television humourist Mads Brügger is still the reigning champion of undercover "provoca-tourism" (tm). Whether he was taking a group of handicapped theatrical troupe into North Korea on a cultural exchange (The Red Chapel) or setting up a blood diamond business in Central Africa Republic in terms of risk-for-the-sake-of-illumination (The Ambassador).
My Scientology Movie is not without its moments, though. A random, almost non-sequitur, encounter with actress Paz de la Huerta sees a very quick-witted Theroux navigate a weird, and weirdly cliché, pooliside Los Angeles moment with humour and grace. The relationship strain between Rathburn and Theroux slowly slides into the front and centre of the doc, as the pressure mounts and things start to go into a kind of hall-of-mirrors with the re-creation content. In the end, much like Scientology itself, I am not entirely sure what was learned from the experience.
There is this takeaway though: The one thing the Church hates more than the media or the run of the mill SP, is someone setting up a rival church using the same principles. They naturally have jargon for this as well, "Squirrelling." While My Scientology Movie gets the slightest of tastes of what the Church practices Squirrel-Busting, it begs the question. Instead of baiting the Church by re-creating its greatest media hits, Dower and Theroux (and Rathburn) could have set up and run a rival church. That would have really brought down the thunder they seemed to be looking for.